Uneasy Balance

One of the most important things about church to me is the feeling of being part of something bigger than myself — something important.

One of the scariest things about church to me is the feeling of social pressure to agree with things that I don’t agree with.

Church is a tricky thing. Having friendships with people who have the same inner motivations as you is one of the greatest things a person can experience, whether it’s a religion, a political group, a cause, even just a passion about a hobby. But unlike most hobbies, religion carries with it the idea that you are supposed to believe certain things, think certain things, accept certain things, reject certain things.

And, as countless people have pointed out, religious leaders have the opportunity to shape the beliefs to match their own. Whether it’s done deliberately or incidentally, whether it affects the core beliefs or the tangential esoterica of doctrine, the fact is that not everything in anyone’s church is strictly the original intent.

The real difficulty is that as people mature, their views on things change, and often the changes coincide with church teachings. New understandings open the way to new enlightenment, and very often the church has been promoting these new understandings and new enlightenments. It may be coincidence that a churchgoer experiences this in conjunction with a church teaching, but often it really does make sense. The point of a church is to guide people to better ways. Unfortunately, this leads to a reliance strictly on church teachings. In many churches, that’s encouraged — doctrine is defined so that people don’t “stray” too far from the path that their leadership has determined. What’s the point of doctrine if you don’t mind when people go their own way?

It’s a good thing when the church leadership has the wisdom to guide people to understanding why the doctrine exists, as opposed to treating it as YOU VIOLATE THIS AND YOU ARE DAMNED TO THE DEEPEST DARKEST MOST POORLY VENTILATED CORNER OF HELL.

The uneasy balance that I find is that one has to be able to delineate what is actually related to doctrine and what is not related to doctrine. Trying to determine when you’re supposed to get over your own issues in order to take an important step with your faith, versus finding yourself at an impasse between personal imperatives and the leadership decisions of a church.

How does one make those sorts of decisions? How does one know when you should be striving to change who you are for the better, and when you should take a stand on who you are?

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7 Responses to Uneasy Balance

  1. Daina Burke says:

    I have GOT to read your blog stuff more often! This is good stuff, man!

  2. hellohilary says:

    “The uneasy balance that I find is that one has to be able to delineate what is actually related to doctrine and what is not related to doctrine. Trying to determine when you’re supposed to get over your own issues in order to take an important step with your faith, versus finding yourself at an impasse between personal imperatives and the leadership decisions of a church.”

    *WORD*

    Umm…we just went through this at our church and I ended up at the opposite decision than the majority of the voting population at church. Now we are between a rock and a hard place and just avoiding church all together.

  3. Kendra says:

    Love this post. In my personal journey I’ve found two ways to deal with the problem of discerning between doctrine and not-doctrine:
    1) Following the inner voice/gut instinct which begins to whisper when it seems that religious practice is straying from the core principles of my belief. The Quakers called this the “Inner Light” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_light) and they believe that in communion with the Holy Spirit we can come to better understand the will of God. Can this be flawed? Yes. Can I claim that my Inner Light is more right than that of someone who disagrees with me? No. Is it possible for a group of people to run religious community using Inner Light? I don’t know, but there are pleanty of liberal Quakers and Minnonites who seem to be doing a good job of it. Basically, for me, if some rule or tradition seems to be running counter to the Law of Love as I am able to understand it, I get very cautious. For me, Love is the highest goal and no cow is too sacred to be sacrificed to that end.
    2) Learning about Church history has been so valuable to me in beginning to understand what has passed from tradition into “doctrine.” My best friend and her husband are geeks for this stuff and they have multiple degrees from conservative colleges and universities in theology and ancient languages. What’s so neat to see is that they more they have learned they more they have realized that most of what we have been taught is “right and wrong” or “the way it’s always been and the way it should be” has actually not been around all that long and not nearly as set in stone as we’ve been told. Most of the church history I was raise on actually only comes from the last hundred years or so (and most of evangelicalism from only the last 50-60 years). My friends have gone from being staunch conservative Christians to very open-minded liberals who hold gently to a Christian life that has one foot in ancient mystical Christian tradition and the other in modern progressive, justice-minded action. I cannot tell you how many things I have talked to them about regarding areas of Christian doctrine that deeply trouble me where they have smiled and said, “That’s not doctrine. That’s something that was mistranslated/applied to a specific cultural context/was part of a power grab by some religious group/was invented by evangelicals about 50 years ago because they were convinced they were preparing for a nuclear Armageddon. Your instinct was right.” (And they’re not talking out of their asses. They have the evidence to back it up. I love having smart friends.)

    All of this requires massive amounts of humility, and I acknowledge that the above doesn’t sound very humble. But … I don’t know, I’ve had to learn more humility over the last decade of my life as I have come to the understanding that all truth must be held with an open hand, and no one man or group of people or book can claim to have the total and complete truth. It can be scary to live with the internal tension of not knowing what’s on God’s checklist of “right and wrong” (if she even has one). I think that’s why so many Christians have tried to turn the bible into a checklist and they have begun to worship that checklist more than God.

    • strangedavid says:

      While I very much enjoy and appreciate your response, it leads me to believe that perhaps I wasn’t clear in my post. I don’t just mean issues of right and wrong, although those are certainly the biggest areas where trying to define one’s decision to adhere to (or stray from) official doctrine is crucial. I’m wondering even more about areas in which doctrine doesn’t even come into play. It’s very easy for a church to choose to do something with which a congregant disapproves — say, for example, hiring a new pastor who prefers and insists that the only songs sung are ones that are based directly off of scripture passages (or having the church board decide this, or whatever). And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this decision is reached after very intense and sincere prayer and “soul-searching,” and the leadership truly believes that this is what’s best for the church right now. There’s nothing wrong with singing those songs, but many in the congregation would strongly prefer to include other songs such as “Amazing Grace.” It’s not doctrine, and it’s not even necessarily a theological battle — it’s just the preference of the person or people in charge. It’s very easy, when challenged by a congregant, for leadership to say, “Well, we prayed about it and this is what we’re doing, so you need to get on board and see what God has in store for you.” It’s possible that they’re right, and they may mean it in all sincerity with honest and pure motives… but at what point does that just become an unintentional abuse of power? Maybe what God has in store for that congregant is severing his or her relationship with that congregation. Just because a choice to follow leadership is unpleasant doesn’t make it the right thing to do… but on the other hand, just because a choice to follow leadership goes against one’s personal preferences doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do.

  4. sara says:

    Bingo – “How does one make those sorts of decisions? How does one know when you should be striving to change who you are for the better, and when you should take a stand on who you are?”

    My thoughts exactly. Anxious to talk further and see how you guys end up answering those questions.

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